Oklahoma attorney general sues federal agency over suspended Title X grant

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and the HHS Department are being sued by Oklahoma Attorney Gentner Drummond over its suspension of a family planning grant to the state.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and the HHS Department are being sued by Oklahoma Attorney Gentner Drummond over its suspension of a family planning grant to the state.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond has sued the federal Department of Health and Human Services after the agency suspended a Title X family planning grant the Oklahoma State Department of Health had received for more than 40 years.

Drummond filed the lawsuit on Friday in U.S. District Court. It names HHS, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population Affairs Jessica Marcella and the HHS Office of Population Affairs as defendants. The suit alleges HHS took millions in Title X money from Oklahoma and Tennessee and instead awarded it to groups that support abortion services.

The federal agency suspended the $4.5 million grant in May after a dispute concerning federal rules for Title X, and the state Health Department appealed the grant’s suspension

However, last month, The Frontier reported that the nonprofit Missouri Family Health Council had received almost $3.3 million in new federal funding earmarked for services in Oklahoma. According to the suit, another Missouri agency, Community Health Connection Inc., received $216,000 in similar federal funds.

More: Attorney general's office 'exploring options' after Oklahoma loses Title X funding

The state Health Department appealed the HHS decision to suspend the grant, and the appeal is being heard by an appeals committee. The decision from the HHS appeals committee is still pending.

The suit seeks reinstatement of Oklahoma’s Title X family planning grant.

"The federal government’s sole justification for disrupting decades of health services and determining that an out-of-state entity in Missouri was in the best position to provide necessary health services to citizens in the State of Oklahoma is that the Health Department refuses to approve of referrals for abortions,” according to the suit.

A spokesperson for HHS said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. Emily Wales, the president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said the lawsuit "highlights how the state is trying to pick and choose from the grants requirements it would follow, and that's not how federal law works." She said Title X "is a critical part of the family planning safety net across the state, particularly for low-resource Oklahomans. We are deeply concerned about the state's non-compliance with the program, because Title X patients deserve the same essential information no matter where they live."

What is Title X used for, and why did the Department of Health and Human Services end it in Oklahoma?

States use Title X grants to offer a range of services. Federal law regarding Title X grants says they can’t be used to provide abortion as a method of family planning, but that clients must be provided information about pregnancy termination, along with prenatal care and delivery, infant care, foster care and adoption.

In May, a spokesperson for Oklahoma's Health Department said the federal agency “has interpreted their rules in such a way as to require OSDH to execute the grant via a policy that is contrary to state law.” Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down its federal abortion rights precedents in 2022, Oklahoma state law has banned most abortions.

“Title X in no way requires abortion referrals for a State’s continued participation,” the suit said. “Rather, sans authority, HHS seeks to punish Oklahoma for the policies adopted by Oklahoma’s elected representatives to protect unborn life. HHS is interfering with rights reserved to the people and their elected representatives despite a clear federal mandate that Title X funds should not be used in programs where abortion is offered as a method of family planning.”

More: Oklahoma Supreme Court halts anti-abortion laws challenged by women's rights groups

In a statement, Gov. Kevin Stitt — who has been at odds with Drummond on other legal issues — said he supported the attorney general’s lawsuit and that he “will support this effort in any way necessary.”

“The Biden administration’s actions to terminate our healthcare funding due to our pro-life laws is simply an abuse of power,” Stitt said. “These funds are essential to provide necessary services for Oklahomans across the state.”

The state Health Department has used Title X funds for services such as cancer screening, breast exams, depression screening and pregnancy prevention. Since HHS suspended the grant, the state Health Department has been using $4.5 million appropriated by the state Legislature to continue operating family planning services in Oklahoma.

“In many instances, particularly in rural Oklahoma communities, the Health Department and county health departments may be one of the only access points for critical preventative services for tens or even hundreds of miles,” the suit said. “Some of these same rural communities may not have a grocery store, let alone the presence of a full-time health provider or women’s health provider. Thus, many of the patients the Health Department sees already have difficulty accessing the health care they need because of location, work schedules, and/or transportation issues. These communities are disproportionality impacted by lack of easy access to crucial health services, and that impact will grow as a result of HHS’s arbitrary and punitive action.”

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma attorney general sues over suspended family planning grant